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Exposure to solar UV-B radiation accelerates mass and lignin loss of Larrea tridentata litter in the Sonoran Desert


We assessed whether exposure to solar ultraviolet-B radiation (UV-B) affects the mass loss of Larrea tridentata (creosotebush) litter in the Sonoran Desert of central Arizona. We placed three types of litter (leaves, twigs, or a natural mixture of leaves, twigs, and seeds) in bags constructed of UV-B-transmitting or UV-B-absorbing filter material that allowed either 85% (near-ambient UV-B treatment) or 15% (reduced UV-B treatment) of the biologically effective solar UV-B to reach litter inside the bags. Bags were placed outdoors for 4–5 months during the winter at two sites: a balcony or on the soil surface of the desert. Mass loss of leaf litter was greater under near-ambient UV-B than reduced UV-B at both sites: 21 (near-ambient) vs. 18% (reduced) on the balcony, and 18 vs. 14% at the desert site. Mass loss of twig litter was also greater under near-ambient UV-B at the desert site. Mass loss of the natural mixture of litter was also greater when exposed to near-ambient UV-B on the balcony, and tended to be greater at the desert site. We estimate that about 14–22% of the total mass loss of leaf litter during our 4–5 month experiments was attributable to solar UV-B exposure. Leaf litter exposed to near-ambient UV-B had lower concentrations of lignin, and fats and lipids, and slightly higher concentrations of holocellulose. The greater mass loss of litter under near-ambient UV-B appeared mainly attributable to loss of lignin, although losses of fats and lipids were also appreciable. A primary reason for greater mass loss of litter under solar UV-B appeared to be photodegradation, particularly of lignin.

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We thank Christopher Buyarski for assistance in sample preparation and chemical analyses, and Brock McMillan for assistance and use of the flash combustion analyzer. Gregory Johnson and Robert Coleman provided advice on approaches. We also thank the staff of the Desert Botanical Gardens, Phoenix, AZ for permission to conduct our experiment in their Larrea conservation area. Some of the research was conducted while Elisa T. Zhang was a high school intern in the laboratory of the senior author. Partial support for this research was provided by NSF OPP-0230579.

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Correspondence to Thomas A. Day.

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Day, T.A., Zhang, E.T. & Ruhland, C.T. Exposure to solar UV-B radiation accelerates mass and lignin loss of Larrea tridentata litter in the Sonoran Desert. Plant Ecol 193, 185–194 (2007).

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